Most deadlines are arbitrary. We make them up as we go. Whether it’s a financial year-end or a cutoff time on a half-marathon, they’re all, in the end, fictitious. So why is it essential to ensure the contract is signed before the 28th of February? Deadlines like these – specifically top-down decreed deadlines – often cause anxiety and burnout in organisations. We want to explore how to eliminate the anxiety-inducing deadlines and use them to our benefit.

The importance of deadlines

One of the ways we create deadlines is through goal management methodologies like OKRs. Fictitious as they might be, deadlines change our behaviour. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman elaborates on a study conducted with students to understand the impact of deadlines. They divided the students into three groups, asking the first group to do the work with no deadline, the second group to create their own deadline, and giving the third group a set deadline. The outcome was that the third group performed significantly better than the other two.

Fictitious as they might be, deadlines change our behaviour.

Why would a deadline cause an uptick in performance? There are a few reasons we’ve seen, and not all of them relate to a study on students.

Increasing effort: In 1932, Clark Hull crafted the goal gradient hypothesis. In short, the hypothesis posits that the closer we get to achieving the goal, the more effort we expend to reach it. When a goal and its deadline are clearly defined, studies show that our instinct will kick in, and we will expend more effort to reach that goal.

Prioritising the urgent: The idea of an impending deadline creates a sense of urgency. However, very important strategic initiatives are seldom urgent, so we struggle to prioritise them. Giving it a deadline will change that mindset.

Providing consistency: One of the crucial elements of execution is breaking large initiatives down into smaller chunks. We can make consistent progress towards an ambitious goal by breaking them down into smaller chunks. This consistency in the flow of work enables a healthier working environment and allows challenges to be highlighted earlier.

Driving for decisions: We’ve written before about the importance of making decisions, even if it’s deciding “no”. Decisions create clarity for a team, and it moves us forward. We learn from our decisions but very seldom learn if we haven’t made any decision or commitment. Sometimes, a deadline is all we need to encourage us to make that decision.

Increasing cross-team coordination: An organisation consists of a complex interconnected web of relationships and dependencies. A product team depends on a finance team to give them a report by a certain date, enabling them to make an informed decision. Collaboration and coordination between these teams will increase if the product team is clear on what will be delivered by when.

Using OKRs to set deadlines the right way

We use OKRs as a methodology to break ambitious strategic goals into shorter-term ones, make them more relatable for the rest of the organisation and ensure consistent progress towards meeting those strategic goals. OKRs work to progress us towards meeting our goals because the methodology is very deliberate about a few things.

Whether it’s OKRs or any other methodology involving deadlines, it could do significant damage if they are set wrong. So here are a few things to consider.

The what and the when: OKRs are a critical thinking framework and ongoing discipline. The ongoing discipline relates to the “when” – these are the deadlines. But we can’t commit to a deadline if there’s no clarity about what will be delivered. This is the critical thinking framework, the “what”. We are very specific about how we articulate Key Results to create clarity. The warning: If there’s no clarity on the “what”, then the “when” doesn’t matter.

The process for agreement: The process for coming up with OKRs is bi-directional; it’s top-down and bottom-up. Yes, the senior management has a role to play and provides direction, but the teams also have a say in what they can and will eventually commit to. The warning: Externally-imposed deadlines could be seen as authoritarian and decreases team engagement because they aren’t bought into the commitments.

The outcome we pursue: We talk about OKRs as an outcomes-based goal management methodology. An outcome is the benefit the organisation or the market experiences from your tasks. Although there’s a place for setting deadlines for tasks, we want to achieve more outcomes and not just be busy with more tasks. The warning: If a task can’t be linked to an outcome, we’ll be busier without achieving more.

The level of performance: Goals should be achievable. Goals should be ambitious, yes, but we’ve seen some clients set such ambitious goals (either the “what” or the “when”) that it causes teams to disengage. Pragmatism is a key principle of successful execution. The warning: There are two reasons why teams might disengage – if goals are too ambitious or not ambitious enough. Find the right balance over time.

Using deadlines to our benefit

In most of our work with clients, we consider strategic, long-term initiatives to propel the company towards its purpose and ambition. Unfortunately, these elements typically don’t have a sense of urgency – it’s very important but not always urgent. So how do we encourage teams to pursue long-term, strategic initiatives? Through creating urgency with deadlines.

Deadlines increase stress on teams. Stress is good; it’s how we grow – if applied correctly, as we’ve seen above. Here are a few practical elements to apply to make deadlines work to your benefit:

Create a cadence

Creating small deadlines to increase immediate stress will reduce the under-pressure work later. For example, with OKRs, we typically work on quarterly cycles, breaking the long-term strategy into quarterly goals. Furthermore, we encourage weekly meetings to ensure continuous progress on quarterly goals – in essence, more mini-deadlines.

Attach consequences

Even though most deadlines are arbitrary, there is an impact if it’s not met. You don’t get a medal if you don’t finish the race within the cutoff time. If you don’t meet budgets before year-end, it’ll impact the share price. So ensure consequences are proportional to the seriousness of the work. Sometimes, the consequence could be as simple as a social contract or public accountability.

Start with a plan

A deadline without a plan will whizz past. Planning forces us to estimate the effort required. It creates clarity on expectations and ensures a smooth flow of work. A decent amount of planning also allows us to predict potential problems and limit the damage later on.

Remember to reflect

If we’ve planned the amount of effort required, it allows us to learn from our experience and get better at predicting. But only if we stop to reflect on our experience. This understanding further increases alignment on expectations, allows teams to set realistic targets, and permits them to push back when too much is expected of them.

Deadlines, if used poorly, could be seen as the bully at school – manipulative, forceful and hostile. Used correctly, though, a deadline is an incredible ally to drive execution excellence.

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